Most games are made exactly the way you planned from the start, right? From mild inconveniences that require a little adaptation to headache-inducing issues that mean starting from scratch, we’ve all seen a project divert from its original vision. While there are plenty of anecdotes of this phenomenon you can read about online (and maybe some of your own you’d rather forget), we wanted to share our journey at Norsfell of making one game out of another.
Our recently-launched mobile strategy builder, All-Star Troopers, was just featured worldwide by Apple as a ‘New Game We Love’ in over 70 countries, even hitting 1st place in Canada! But our latest achievement started out as Ragna Cycle, a cyclical game that looked and felt completely different. These titles have a lot in common - building a temporary defense system, asynchronous PvP battles, animal heroes, space - but are forever cemented in our company history as a major turning point in the creative development process. How did one game turn into another? Join us, as we walk down memory lane...
Ragna Cycle was born from an idea to challenge the expectations of multiplayer mobile games that the market was already familiar with. We were interested in making something for mid-core gamers featuring PvP gameplay, but with a constantly evolving arena that prompted players to take the ‘strategy’ part of the genre very seriously. As players ourselves, we recognized that while it’s fun to start building a base and be creative, it can get annoying to manage as it gets bigger and requires constant upgrades to stay competitive.
Retaining this element of fun resulted in the development of the cycle aspect of Ragna Cycle: every two weeks, the planet everyone was battling on would be destroyed and could give players a clean slate to build again. Factions would retain their skills and upgrades while creating a new base on a new map, truly being able to strategize and plan for the next cycle of battles.
A sample frame of Ragna Cycle gameplay, with a close view of the map and defenses.
Thus, our designs turned toward a large map that players moved across while controlling a squad of heroes in battle against other players. These plans led us to think about resource sharing and storage within a team, as well as in-game events that could shake things up.
And of course, we made sure it looked good. The universe of Ragna Cycle was inspired by steampunk art and science fiction, using visual elements of the industrial revolution and retro astronomy. Our artists looked to Jules Verne and Nikola Tesla for inspiration, and imagined a colourful world that would appeal to all kinds of audiences. The art was bright and cartoony! There were 3D animals in techno space gear! So what happened?
Our sci-fi, high-tech heroes!
As we began to show the game around and gather feedback from our advisors and good friends at Gamescom and GDC, the responses we heard were falling in line with some issues we were beginning to face back in the studio. Additionally, we had playtesting sessions that gave us some very direct responses from players that also proved to be consistent with our fears.
One of the biggest issues we were noticing was that the gameplay loop was not as player-serving as we originally thought. People found that having their base destroyed after working hard on growing it felt very harsh and took away their agency, and the experience of the cycle was not particularly rewarding for the player who had invested their time and energy into the game. Even though players were retaining their progress and only had to rearrange the structures they had unlocked on a new map, it felt disappointing and lacked excitement.
Our cycle concept also faced the issue of onboarding players toward the end of the two-week journey. How do you provide a satisfying experience to new users when they arrive to the game with only a few hours or even minutes left in a cycle? Creating a fair system that would retain downloaders and still be fun to build in was a major challenge, and we saw that there was an uneven advantage for those that happened to start the game earlier in the cycle.
The panoramic Mothership that looked great, but didn’t quite work out for us.
Another issue was the map itself, as it was growing awfully big for the screen and logic of a mobile game. Our testers were finding navigation tricky and the Mothership - the centre of operations - wasn’t coming across as inviting or important to players as we wanted it to be. Not to mention, the market was becoming saturated with these types of strategy builders already and Ragna Cycle wouldn’t necessarily stand out among these titles. And ultimately, our critics found that the sci-fi theme would not be as catchy as we expected worldwide, but rather, a better concept for a non-mobile game.
So, disheartened but still determined, we went back to the drawing board. There were a lot of strong elements from Ragna Cycle that we knew we wanted to keep, and others that could be scrapped right away. One of the first things to go was the two-week cycle, which was shorted to one week. Doing this meant that players could still progress significantly in a week, but would not become so attached to their base. We also redesigned the cycle so that bases were not destroyed at the end; only the players qualifying for promotion in the top rankings would change to a new planet and restart on a new base, thus returning more agency to the player without an imposing system of renewal.
Not to mention, the game perspective changed entirely! Ragna Cycle had a horizontal format, as was needed to show the full scale of the map. But with smaller map sizes, this was no longer a requirement. Plus, we needed to make sure that our game would adapt to the growing sizes of screens that were now available, with a clear trend of games moving to a vertical format to accommodate these devices.
What our Mothership looks like now; look at that easy-to-navigate menu!
Another change was to clean up the Mothership to make it a more obvious place to upgrade your troops and buildings. Our earlier design was sharp and eye-catching with an ‘inside-the-ship’ perspective, but it did not give the player a strong feeling of control and progression that is needed for a strategy builder. Instead, we reworked the screen to have a bird’s eye view of the ship that resulted in a menu that was easier to navigate and friendlier for mobile players.
Our original sci-fi theme was traded in for a more galactic military look, which our advisors suggested would better fit the category of game that it was in. Although the art was beautiful and interesting to look at, we didn’t want our bright colour choices and animal heroes to be mistaken for a kids-only game, with our true target audience being much older. It became clear that a more serious style would help us reach the players we were aiming for.
A more military-based character sketch, based off the pup of one of our programmers.
Speaking of characters, quite a few of our heroes received a makeover! To match with the new theme, we needed some more militant creatures to be running the show. Inspired by various historical eras, we returned the focus to the battles and battlefield, rather than drawing more attention to the world of the game and thus out of the core loop.
We also pulled back on one complicated mechanic that came with our troopers; controlling three heroes at the same time. This redesign changed our map to a single path on which to move, taking inspiration from games live Royal Revolt and Olympus Rising. Now, players were given a team of three, but could switch between which one led the charge at a given time.
Props for our ‘jungle’ planet - hard to notice the yellow snake when you’re focused on battles!
Then came the name. We had picked Ragna Cycle to reflect the idea of ‘Ragnarok’ (the world is ending), and cycles (there is a time limit), but truthfully it was always an internal code name and none of us were particularly attached to it. Since the game no longer emphasized the cycle element as strongly as its predecessor, we needed something attention-grabbing and specific!
After a lot of brainstorming, we decided on All-Star Troopers because it not only better reflected the kind of game it was, but was easier for our target audience to find in an online search. We analyzed keyword searches to determine the main words that would not only be instantly recognizable, but hint at the theme of the game.
Thus, All-Star Troopers rose from the ashes of Ragna Cycle as a vertical strategy builder that still offered the same cyclical event system that would allow for fresh gameplay. Now, the emphasis was on finding the perfect combination of troopers for your offensive attack, while also crafting the ideal layout of defenses to protect your base. New planet biomes keep the exploration exciting, and brave little pig soldiers are your reinforcements on the field.
Changing our designs this late in the game (pun intended?) was a strategic move that brought a lot of benefits. We were able to save a project that might not have done very well commercially had we not listened to our advisors. It’s easy for game makers to get caught up in our own wild ideas, especially when trying to make something unique to the market, that we forget to think about those who are actually going to be downloading the game. Most importantly, our team at Norsfell wanted to strike a happy medium between a new, clever experience, and a game that fans of strategy builders would be familiar and comfortable with.
One of the biggest and most obvious consequences of changing a game project so drastically is that it extended our timeline significantly, as much of the original prototype couldn’t be reused. We had to rework our original ideas into an experience that better fit into the competitive world of mobile games, which was a little disappointing to give up on.
Today, our vertical strategy builder All-Star Troopers is out in the world and has overcome hurdles with much more ease than Ragna Cycle would have. We’re proud of our decision to make such massive design changes to the game, and glad that we listened to the honest voices that suggested we do so! Not to mention the payoff; we’ve been receiving positive reviews from outlets such as Pocket Gamer and Touch Arcade, as well as an overall user rating of 4.5/5. It’s never easy when a cool idea turns into a big problem, but catching it early and being open-minded about your options is the best course of action. We definitely would prefer not to run into similar issues on our next title, but if we do need a mid-development design overhaul, we feel much more confident about going with the flow and being open to change this time around.
Have you encountered a similar roadblock in your game development travels? We’d love to hear about it and know we’re not alone! Comment below or reach out to us on any of Norsfell’s social media channels. (And don't forget to check out All-Star Troopers too... available now on iOS and Android!)